Throughout the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Americans have been advised to wear face masks to protect themselves and others against the potentially life-threatening illness. This issue has sparked social division throughout the country, but Black men have borne an additional weight.
In addition to grappling with perceptions of being more untrustworthy and more threatening while wearing face masks, according to a Washington Post analysis, Black men have also been reminded of the psychological masks they often wear in social situations to navigate emotional survival and safeguard themselves from harm.
As a mental health therapist and African American man, I’m familiar with psychological masks that I and other Black men have donned in absence of emotional safety to navigate the stress of perceived powerlessness and marginalization. They are adaptive and protective, allowing our brains to modify behaviors in response to the loss of control and sense of helplessness in traumatic experiences.
We wear these masks to conceal our pain; to convey strength despite feeling vulnerable; to obtain respect, even while sensing contempt from others; to mimic belonging amid systems and structures fashioned for our exclusion.
But we must remember: The road to our healing is paved by our willingness to take off our masks and still believe we can be safe.
Some people have suggested these masks are inherently problematic, hypermasculine or toxic. Popular culture has idealized our masks as swagger, coolness, or charisma. Whether celebrated as fashionable or spurned as vulgar, the way Black men mask our inner selves to navigate endless stereotypes, caricatures and expectations of who we are can have dire consequences on our mental, emotional and physical well-being.
Black men die at higher rates compared to nearly every other population group, and that gap continues to widen each year. The accumulated impact of stress-related health conditions and the lack of access to adequate physical and mental health care perpetuate this dire situation. Rising rates of suicide, depression and psychological distress are robbing Black men of their futures and their hopes.
Our masks may say we’re OK, even when we are not.
Masks have been one of the many adaptations that have enabled us to survive and thrive despite stressors of a traumatic history and continuously problematic present day. Our African ancestors used traditional masks in celebratory festivals, in war, and in expressions of spirituality, so we, too, can hold our masks in high esteem as beacons of our inner fortitude and resilience. But we must also learn to lay our masks down to make room for our true selves.
We do have pain. We are afraid. Our anger is real and valid and justified. At times, we do feel vulnerable. And those we love and who love us need to know that, sometimes, we are not OK.
It’s true that Black men have been given reason to believe that people will be misunderstanding, misjudge our intentions or feel threatened by us in places like department stores, during police stops, or when we are attempting to protect our physical bodies from COVID-19.
Still, the data on the physical and mental health disparities for Black men necessitates that we begin to acknowledge when we are not OK. Research finds that black men, on average, die more than seven years earlier than U.S. women of all races, and Black men die younger than all other groups of men, except Native Americans. Those who want to help us need to recognize that, like all other humans, we may not be OK, despite the masks we wear.
We must know that we can trust. We must believe that we will not be stereotyped or immediately feared. We might discover safety among people with whom we can share our stories and expose our scars.
We might find that safety with healers, mental health therapists and other helping professionals who are willing to guide us in gaining a deeper understanding of our own emotions, vulnerabilities and strengths. We might find that safety by embracing the remarkable history of our collective resilience or the formidable forcefulness of our hope, our faith and our love.
Whatever approach we take, we must find that safety — the safety to take off the masks we wear, to be honest about who we really are, and discover our true selves.
Ereke Bruce, LICSWA, is a clinician at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Valley Cities. Ereke served an active duty career in the U.S. Army with multiple combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology from Middle Tennessee State University and a Master of Social Work degree from Fordham University. Ereke is passionate about serving and supporting service members, veterans, and their families. He previously worked as an intake coordinator and housing navigator for homeless veterans in Thurston County.